45 Years on, Jazz Fest Remains an Irresistible Draw

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Photos by Rick Mitchell
Jermaine Hawkins and the Harvey Spirituals in Jazz Fest's Gospel Tent
The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival wrapped up its 45th anniversary celebration this weekend with an announcement that Shell Oil will remain the festival's presenting sponsor for at least five more years, when it will turn 50. The seven-day event was blessed with near-perfect weather and played to huge crowds this past Saturday and Sunday, with New Orleans favorite son Trombone Shorty closing down the Acura Stage and John Fogerty headlining on the Samsung Galaxy Stage at the other end of the Fairgrounds racetrack.

In many ways, Jazz Fest is bigger and better than ever; it is, in my opinion, the best music festival in America, if not the world. What makes this growth all the more remarkable is that the festival almost died ten years ago, when torrential rains shut down the festival on both weekends. In survival mode, the nonprofit New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation and Festival Productions formed a partnership with AEG Live, one of the two largest concert promoters in the country. This partnership enabled the festival to come back from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and Shell signed on as presenting sponsor in 2006.


Since then, Jazz Fest has featured a parade of superstar headliners, including Christina Aguilera on Friday and Bruce Springsteen on Saturday on this year's second weekend.

REWIND: A Special Springsteen Preview From New Orleans


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Needless to say, this evolution toward the mainstream has not come without criticism from New Orleans locals and longtime festivalgoers. Springsteen, whose Saturday set paid heartfelt tribute to New Orleans' musical heritage, is one thing. Aguilera -- who according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune was in full diva mode, arriving late and changing her clothes several times during her set -- is another.

At the press conference announcing the Shell sponsorship, Quint Davis -- whose Festival Productions has run Jazz Fest almost from the beginning -- told a reporter asking about strings attached to the money, "If Christina Aguilera does not suggest to you that we are stretching our boundaries, I don't know what will."

But what makes Jazz Fest the best music festival in the country is not the superstar headliners, who can be heard at any number of other festivals and on their stadium tours. What makes it great is the same thing that made it special in the first place: New Orleans. The brass-band parades winding through the Fairgrounds. The Mardi Gras Indian displays in the Louisiana Folklife Village. The food courts with specialties such as Crawfish Monica and Alligator Pie. And most of all, the wonderful local and regional music featured on the smaller stages.

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Saturday was all about Bruce, with crowds so thick that by 2 p.m. that you could hardly move in front of the main stages.You stood your ground, craned your neck and watched the afternoon performers such as Allen Toussaint and Better Than Ezra on the big video screens at both sides of the stage rather than looking at the stage itself. In the Blues Tent, slide guitarist Roy Rogers played to what was probably the largest crowd he will see all year, many of whom were wearing the same type of short-brim straw hat Rogers has been sporting for the last 30 years.

On Friday, the crowd was big but not so massive, and it was much easier to get around. I saw at least one song by 20 different acts performing on ten different stages, starting with Jermaine Hawkins and the Harvey Spirituals in the Gospel Tent, the first stage you pass when entering the Fairgrounds through the Sauvage Pedestrain Entrance.

The group was rocking hard on songs with choruses like "Can I get a witness?" and "I want to take you higher." But these were not the familar pop/R&B songs by Marvin Gaye and Sly Stone with those titles. This is where those guys got it from -- church -- except at this church you can smell reefer wafting through the air and tourists from New York and Philadelphia who probably have probably not been to an actual church (or synagogue) in decades are down front dancing and waving their arms in the air for Jesus.


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